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Young Arab and Black men jailed and fined in France’s riot trials

Fast-track trials deliver hefty sentences for petty crimes committed during riots sparked by police killing teenager

M. Jesuthasan
M. Jesuthasan
20 July 2023, 12.19pm

Protesters run from tear gas during clashes with police in Marseille, 1 July 2023


Clement Mahoudeau / AFP / Getty Images

In a courtroom in Marseille this month, a young man was handed an eight-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and an €800 fine. He had been accused of stealing €20.

Just days earlier the man had picked up a roll of 50 cent coins outside a make-up shop that was being looted in the southern French city. There was no suggestion he entered the store, and the company made no damage claims against him. But he was arrested almost immediately.

“I wasn’t thinking of the consequences,” the man, who is of North African descent, said during the trial, which openDemocracy attended.

The man’s story is not unusual. Across France, young Arab and Black men from low-income neighbourhoods are being tried over the unrest that plagued the country for a week after Nahel, a 17-year-old of Moroccan and Algerian descent, was killed by police during a routine traffic stop in Nanterre, a Parisian suburb, on 27 June.

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Police initially claimed Nahel was shot in self-defence by an officer he was trying to drive into, but a video released by a witness contradicted this. It showed an officer shouting and pointing a gun directly into Nahel’s car, before shooting him as he tried to drive away.

Gatherings and marches took place across the country following Nahel’s death, including one organised by his mother that police suppressed with tear gas. Soon, riots overtook these organised initiatives.

On 30 June, following three nights of violence and vandalism, 45,000 police officers were deployed to curb the unrest – almost four times more than during the protests against pension reforms earlier this year.

Nearly 4,000 people were arrested over the next five days, a third of whom were minors. It is not yet known how many were released without charge, but 1,278 ‘fast-track’ trials have taken place in the past two weeks, according to justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, with 95% resulting in a conviction.

The fast-track trials – which take place directly after jail time following an arrest, leaving a defendant’s defence team little time to prepare – come after Dupond-Moretti called for a “swift, tough and systematic” response to the public destruction.

Some white French leftist student activists were present during the riots too, one lawyer said, but they were not the ones being arrested

Some 742 people have been jailed in such trials in recent weeks, with an average sentence of 8.2 months. Many of these people were found guilty of minor charges, such as handling stolen cheese or stealing a can of Red Bull. Judges handed out sentences even when defendants were not directly accused of participating in mass destruction.

France famously does not keep national data on race – and information about those arrested and tried over the riots is limited, especially for cases involving minors. But lawyers and protesters in Marseille told openDemocracy that many defendants are boys and young men of colour from poorer areas. Some white French leftist student activists were present during the riots, too, one lawyer said, but they were not the ones being arrested.

Media reports of fast-track trials across the country have confirmed that many of those being tried are young and in situations of poverty, with some experiencing homelessness or lacking legal immigration status.

“It’s the youngsters from the quartiers populaires [low-income enclaves] who are paying the price,” said one protester, a 24-year-old woman of Moroccan descent who was at the riots and asked for anonymity to avoid legal trouble. “On top of what they’ve endured from the police for years.”

Nicolas Chambardon, a lawyer who provided legal aid for five minors arrested in Marseille between 30 June and 1 July, told openDemocracy that the arrests seemed “quite violent and quite random” and that three of the minors claimed police had insulted them in racist terms.

“Two of the five told me that police had planted stolen items in their belongings or in their hands, even though they hadn’t stolen them,” Chambardon said. He added: “Obviously, it’s a version that can be disputed but there were no charges [for four of them] which seems like an indicator that police knew these cases were shoddy.”

‘Violent and random arrests’

On the same afternoon that the man who stole €20 was handed an eight-month suspended sentence, openDemocracy watched as three other young men of North African descent received sentences ranging from a year in prison to a three-year ban from Marseille.

One man, a 25-year-old undocumented Algerian man, was found guilty of theft after being arrested outside a branch of Footlocker on 2 July, in possession of clothes and shoes from the store. He was sentenced to a year in prison and issued an order to leave the country.

Police had beaten the man with a baton when they arrested him. Once in custody, he had to wait around nine hours to see a doctor.

At the back of the court, onlookers watched in silent disbelief. One family from Marseille’s impoverished 14th arrondissement was there to support a young man accused of attempting to steal a motorcycle. The man’s uncle had spent the day watching other trials while they waited. “She’s mean,” he said glumly, referring to the prosecutor, adding that the family was preparing for the worst.

On social media and in interviews with French news channels, some young men had described their actions as vengeance – not only for Nahel but also against what they described as a violent, racist system that is upheld by the police.

Yet in court in Marseille, defendants denied participating in any kind of protest, claiming they had only been passing by or had wandered towards the crowds out of curiosity.

One 18-year-old had been arrested in possession of fireworks, which the prosecutor argued showed intent to commit an infraction and attempt to injure a police officer. The young man maintained that he had been buying a soft drink from a corner shop when he saw some fireworks on sale and decided to get some for the friend he was staying with.

Slouched forward in the dock, the softly spoken teenager denied having anything to do with the protests after the judge asked about photos on his phone of him posing in the middle of the riots. He said he was swept into the crowd on his way home before being arrested and put in jail for 48 hours. Like the other defendants in court that afternoon, he did not mention Nahel’s death.

The young man, who was living with friends after becoming estranged from his parents, was found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment and a three-year ban from Marseille.

Lawyer Clémence Lachkar, who represented three defendants in Marseille, said admitting to political motives often means risking a longer sentence.

“When you’ve spent 48 hours in jail surrounded by piss and cockroaches, you might not be thinking of the court as a bullhorn, nor of making your trial political,” she explained.

Lachkar added that lawyers had received very little time to prepare with their clients.

“I received this case at 4pm yesterday,” said another lawyer, who was representing the man accused of stealing from Footlocker. The prosecutor reminded her that everyone was dealing with “difficult conditions” that week.

‘Believe young people’

Several people, including some who were allegedly not participating in the riots, were injured or even killed by the police.

In Marseille, one man died of a heart attack after an officer shot him in the chest with a rubber or plastic bullet. According to his family, Mohamed had been working as a delivery driver at the time and had not been participating in the riots. In an initial statement, the prosecuting authorities noted that “riots and looting” were taking place in the area where Mohamed was shot, but said they could not yet determine whether he had participated.

Another man, Hedi, was also shot with a rubber bullet, before being beaten and left unconscious by a group he identified as plain-clothes police officers. In an interview with a local Marseille paper, Hedi said he had been out for a drink with a friend on 1 July and had approached the rioters out of curiosity rather than to participate.

Seven officers were arrested in connection with Hedi’s case on Tuesday, one of whom has been released without charges. Official investigations have been launched into both Hedi’s injury and Mohamed’s death, along with at least eight other cases of suspected police violence elsewhere in France.

The UN said France must ‘seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination’ in policing

The French government has long been accused of failing to tackle systemic racism and police brutality by activists, journalists and left-wing groups, as well as international institutions. Days after Nahel’s death, the UN said France must “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination” in policing. The Foreign Ministry rejected this in a statement to French newspaper Le Monde, saying: “Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded.”

There have also been movements against racism and police brutality in France before. The recent riots have been compared to those of 2005 – which started after two teenagers were killed while running from the police – and the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in France and worldwide in 2020, after George Floyd’s death in the US.

In France, those protests three years ago were led by the family of Adama Traore, a Black man who died in police custody in 2016. On 8 July this year, Traore’s family organised a march in Paris in his memory, which around 2,000 people attended in defiance of French authorities having officially banned the demonstration and a simultaneous one being held in the city of Lille.

The police, including a special brigade created during the Gilets Jaunes movement, responded with a chilling force to the march, particularly against Adama’s brother, Youssouf. Several officers pinned him to the ground while pushing others, including journalists, who tried to film. Youssouf was brought to the police station and then released to the hospital, where he emerged with a black eye. The videos of Youssouf’s arrest are startlingly violent.

As Assa, his sister, explained to the press: “We’ve been asking for a reenactment of Adama’s death for a long time. We saw it yesterday on Youssouf, his brother.”

In Marseille, 1,500 people turned out on 8 July in support of victims of police brutality including Adama, Nahel, and others killed in their city. They marched through the poor neighbourhood of Belle-de-Mai where Souheil el-Khalfaoui, a 19-year-old of North African descent, was killed by police in 2021 during a routine traffic stop, just like Nahel.

“Believe young people,” Youssef, a Moroccan immigrant who participated in the demonstration, urged the crowd. “Don’t wait for there to be a video.”

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